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Friday, 1st Feb 2019
The forgotten county
By Tim Porter
Stones in his pockets
Wednesday 24th April 2019
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During this period of change in our countryside with rural villages being expanded by anonymous housing estates, it was a real pleasure this Spring to re-visit the National Trust village of Coleshill, on the county border between Faringdon and Highworth.
Very little has changed to my knowledge in the last 15-20 years and the village appears to bask in the rural pace of a farming community. But this village holds a secret that was not known about for many years. It was not until the entrance to an underground bunker fell in several years ago that it was realised that the village was a wartime training ground for Churchill’s secret army, members of which were known as Auxiliers.
In 1940, following the evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk, the threat of invasion while our armed forces were weakened, loomed large and Winston Churchill decided that we needed to form a resistance movement before the event. Selected members of the local Home Guard would volunteer to hide underground in secret bunkers, wait until invasion forces had passed on and the fighting had stopped, and then emerge to commit acts of sabotage against the invading forces.
This was a very hazardous undertaking and the life span of the auxiliers was reckoned in terms of a week to 10 days before they were discovered.
Local men were recruited who knew the local landscape and could live off the land, and it is estimated that up to 1000 bunkers were created around the country, mostly concentrated around the South and East coasts. The location of some of these bunkers is probably still unknown as the auxiliers often took their secret to the grave.
The bunkers were constructed by burying a Nissen type hut in woodland, and constructing a brick access chute with a ladder and blast walls to minimise damage from a hand grenade dropped into it. The entrance was covered with a metal tray filled with earth and leaves to match the woodland floor, and an escape tunnel provided at the other end for emergency evacuation. Conditions would have been hard indeed with some 6 or 7 men in such a confined and damp place with no washing facilities and a chemical toilet. Fortunately they were not needed but this does not detract from the bravery of the volunteers who were prepared to sacrifice their lives in such basic conditions.
Coleshill village decided that this aspect of their history should be commemorated, and undertook the creation of a replica bunker in the village itself, to protect the original bunker from deterioration by large numbers of visitors. This was one of their Open Days, when the bunker is open to enable the public to experience the conditions which the men would have faced. When the men were sent for training they were told to report to the Post Office in Highworth, where Mabel the postmistress would ring the secret number to arrange for their transportation to Coleshill, a very remote village in those days.
On arrival they would report to the guardhouse, which still stands at the entrance to the Coleshill House Estate (the house having been sadly destroyed by fire in the 1950’s). It has been carefully but simply renovated to replicate to some extent the rather rudimentary wartime conditions, but with interesting information boards and photos of the volunteers. Unknown to many people is the fact that during the Cold War, the Home Guard was re-established, having been stood down in the latter part of WWII when the threat of invasion had reduced.
Having had the opportunity to visit the original bunker soon after it was first discovered, I think the village has done a wonderful job in recreating it, and to sit in it by the light of a few candles was very atmospheric. As the guide said, the only thing they haven’t reproduced is the smell from unwashed bodies etc., for which we were grateful!
To add further interest to the Open Day, the restored watermill was in operation powered by the original wheel, though the buckets have had to be replaced. This was again a wonderful glimpse of the days before engines or electricity, and the warm and sunny day was rounded off by a visit to the village shop for an ice cream.
- Tim Norris
Note: - Further Open Days are scheduled throughout the summer and details can be obtained from the NT website for Coleshill, Oxfordshire. It’s well worth the extra few miles.